12 Essential Tips for Hosting the Best Thanksgiving Dinner

So, you’ve signed up to host Thanksgiving dinner at your house this year. Whether it’s your first time hosting or you’re an old pro, preparing and serving a meal of this magnitude can be quite a challenge.

Fortunately, you’re not alone in this. We’ve got a handful of essential tips to help you host the best Thanksgiving dinner ever.

1. Create Your Guest List

The guest list is essential to planning and executing a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner party. Whether your guest list consists of only family members who live nearby or a mixed group of friends and neighbors, take the time to make a list of the folks you’ve invited to attend.

Once you’ve got your list together, take a few minutes to call or text each person and inquire about food sensitivities and preferences. If your mother-in-law just found out that she’s lactose-intolerant and your cousin is avoiding wheat, you’ll want to know well in advance so that you can prepare accordingly. Write down any food allergies, preferences and intolerances that each person has next to his or her name.

2. Let Your Guests Help

While you’re chatting with your guests about Turkey Day preparations, many of them may ask what they can bring to contribute to the meal. Handle this question carefully. While it may be tempting to say, “Sure, bring whatever you like,” you can eliminate all of the guesswork by suggesting a dish.

If you know your Aunt Linda loves to bake, suggest that she bring a carrot cake or an apple pie. When your neighbor, who is always quite busy asks what to bring, ask her to pick up some vanilla ice cream or a tray of precut vegetables.

Are there people with specific dietary needs on your guest list or is it watching his or her weight? If your vegan cousin offers to contribute to the meal, ask him to bring one of his favorite vegan side dishes to share. When you’re specific about how your guests can help, it’s less stressful for everyone.

3. Write Out a Plan

Once you have your guest list set in stone and you know what everyone is bringing, it’s time to write out a plan. I looked at some Thanksgiving planning guides online. While many of these guides are excellent, some require plans with more than six weeks of checklists. I’m going to take a big leap and guess that you don’t have the time, energy or desire to begin your Thanksgiving preparations before you’ve even put away your Halloween decor. You’re in good company. I don’t recommend the six-week plan.

I suggest that you write out your plan a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving dinner. The one exception is ordering your bird. If you plan to order a free-range turkey from a local farm, you may need to contact the farmer a couple of months in advance to reserve your poultry.

Now for the written plan. One of the most important things to consider is seating. If you’ve invited 16 adults and four children to your home for a meal, it’s imperative that you have adequate seating for everyone. Take note of how many dining chairs you have and what kind of table space is currently available in your home. Then, plan to rent, borrow or buy additional folding chairs and tables. Write all of this down on your plan.

Next, plan out your table coverings. These are entirely optional. You may wish to have tablecloths, placemats or both. It’s up to you. Perhaps you love the look of your rustic wooden table instead. Choose whichever makes you happy and notate it.

Centerpieces should also be considered in this section. A simple vase of flowers or a grouping of candles should do the trick. If you’ve got a crafty sister-in-law who has offered some extra help, ask her to take on the job of table decor and place cards.

Your shopping list is undoubtedly the most important part of this written plan. Consider all of the dishes you plan to make. Write them out. Then, list the ingredients that it will take to make every dish. Cross off the ingredients you already have in your pantry. What you have left is your Thanksgiving shopping list. Take a few moments to estimate pricing for the items on your list and calculate the bill. You may need to make revisions to accommodate your budget.

Next, consider the serving dishes, utensils, plates and bowls you’ll need for all of your guests. If you don’t own enough plates or spoons, consider stopping at a secondhand store and buying a few more sometime before Thanksgiving.

4. Shop Early ― and Twice

Sadly, you won’t be able to pick up everything on your list the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The stores will be ransacked, and you’ll be stuck with whatever is left on the shelves.

Your best plan for Thanksgiving shopping is to break down your list into two categories: one for dry, nonperishable goods and the other for fresh items. Then, shop for all of your nonperishables the week before Thanksgiving while there’s still an excellent selection available.

Save your fresh items like herbs, fresh produce and certain deli selections for Thanksgiving week. When you plan to pick up the items on the perishable list, try to get to the store right when it opens so that you can find everything you need. If you can’t make it to the store first thing, call ahead and ask them to set aside the fresh items on your list so that you can pick them up later in the day. Many stores now offer pick-up options, so this shouldn’t be an issue.

5. It’s OK to Buy Certain Items Premade

One of the natural foods stores near my home sells the absolute best cranberry-orange relish that I have ever tasted. I used to make my own. But, now, I save myself the trouble and purchase it premade. That same store sells a cheesecake that is out of this world. Guess who isn’t making one from scratch again this year?

Buying those two items premade saves me a couple of precious hours of preparation. Give yourself the same measure of grace. If you find that your local grocer offers some excellent side dishes at fair prices, cross those off your “to-make” list and add them to your cart. Do you know of a restaurant that makes an amazing chocolate cake or the perfect pumpkin pie? Pick one up and add it to your dessert buffet.

One prominent food blogger recommends outsourcing the turkey every year. Kelly Nan of Gracious Living says, “I live next to a meat market and every year, I call a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving and order two 10-pound fried turkey breasts. No one in our family is big on dark meat, so it works well for us.” Nan contends that outsourcing her turkey gives her time and oven space to focus on delicious sides and desserts.

It’s OK to buy certain items premade and serve them at your Thanksgiving feast. An extra hour or two of prep time saved here and there can make all the difference when you’re planning a large dinner.

6. Create a Welcoming Area for Kids

If you have children on your guest list, consider preparing a part of your home with games, toys, coloring books and the like. If you’re planning to have all of the children eat at a separate table, use butcher paper as a tablecloth and allow the kids to color designs on it before dinner is served.

7. Put Out No-fuss Appetizers

Appetizers don’t need to be extra special for Thanksgiving. Give yourself a break and put out a couple of prepared cheese balls with crackers, a tray of cut vegetables with hummus and some washed fruit.

Be sure to place the appetizers in an area where you’d like your guests to congregate. If you’d rather not have 10 extra folks lingering around the kitchen while you’re finishing up your pies, place the crudités elsewhere so that you have the space you need.

8. Prep Certain Dishes a Day or Two Before

The iconic green bean casserole can be prepared almost entirely two days in advance and refrigerated. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, sprinkle on the crispy fried onions and bake it. The same goes for the baked macaroni and cheese and other casserole-type dishes. Pies can always be prepared a day or two in advance. Also, cookies and cakes can be baked early successfully. Cranberry relish can be made in advance too.

For the ultimate make-ahead hack, the folks at Williams-Sonoma recommend roasting your entire Thanksgiving turkey a day or two before the dinner. They suggest that you cook the bird entirely, let it cool, and then cut it into large portions and keep it covered in the refrigerator until Thanksgiving day. To reheat it, they advise, “Put the meat back in a roasting pan. Pour a bit of chicken stock over the turkey to keep it moist and cover. Bake at 325 degrees alongside other dishes for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the bird. Once it’s warm, carve the turkey into slices.”

9. Prepare the Table in Advance

The day before, take care of covering the tables and preparing any table decorations you’d like for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s one less thing you’ll have to concern yourself with on Turkey Day.

10. Consider Using a Slow Cooker for Your Mashed Potatoes

To many, Thanksgiving is not complete without a perfect serving of delicious mashed potatoes. Did you know they can be made more simply with your slow-cooker?

Shelly Jaronsky of the food blog, “Cookies and Cups,” recommends using a slow-cooker to make mashed potatoes. Jaronsky says, “Once I started making potatoes in the slow cooker, I haven’t looked back!”

Make slow cooker mashed potatoes by putting your peeled and cubed potatoes in the slow cooker with whatever fluid you would normally use (water, chicken stock or vegetable stock). Add in cloves of garlic too. Then, set it to cook on high for about four hours. When they’re done cooking, drain any excess liquid, add butter, milk or cream as usual and mash them. Season with salt and ground black pepper. Then, set your slow cooker to the “Keep Warm” setting, and you’re ready for dinner anytime.

This slow-cooker method not only frees up precious stovetop space, but it allows you to focus on other things while the potatoes are cooking. The mashed potatoes will stay warm throughout the meal too.

11. Keep Drinks Simple

There’s no need to put out an elaborate drink buffet for Thanksgiving. Instead, put iced water with lemon into a pretty pitcher. Make another with iced tea and pick up a large bottle of prepared lemonade for the little ones. You can also offer a variety of flavored sparkling water for your guests.

12. Give Yourself a Few Minutes to Unwind Before Guests Arrive

Make sure you’ve been clear with all of your guests about when they can arrive on Thanksgiving Day. Then, give yourself about 30 minutes, before everyone comes, to shower ― you likely smell like onions ― and make yourself a cup of tea. You can jump right back into those finishing touches when you’re done. However, giving yourself a little time for refreshments will help you to enjoy yourself and set the tone for your guests as well.

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to be an up-all-night, overly stressful, ulcer-inducing experience. Employ our 12 essential tips to enjoy having guests over for a scrumptious holiday meal.

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